My name is Caleb, I’m a student at Binghamton who is here in Japan studying at Kokugakuin University in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. For starters, I’m not going to bore you with the (long) plane ride, or the first magical moments I had of seeing the Japanese seaside through a 777’s greasy window. Those are things you’ll experience for yourself, things that can’t really be quantified; they’ll be different every time they happen. Likewise, the people you experience them with will all be different. They are intrinsically unique: that’s what makes them so special. No, let’s talk about something more direct and practical: What do you think about Japan? Or, more accurately: How do you think about Japan?
I studied Japanese language for two years before coming here, and while I think that was generally an adequate amount of linguistic ability, my studies of Japan’s history, culture, society and literature were all nearly as helpful for understanding what exactly is going on. The knowledge I gained from my professors about the context of Japanese life changed the way I thought about Japan and its people. A few of my friends here have expressed that Japan is “different than they thought it would be”, and although it is still an incredible experience, this revelation has caused them difficulty. Culture shock can often occur not just as a result of unfamiliarity or a change in habit and action, but because of a discrepancy between preconception and reality. In the absence of the highly impossible scenario that one has no preconceptions, your next best option is to take the time to learn what exactly you’re jumping into, and create an informed image.
As a result, you can mitigate your culture shock: the lifestyle and daily customs are different, sure, but we all have our own ways of doing things. Things can be difficult to read, familiar items or concepts can be altered, and there’s no shortage of anxiety when you completely fail to comprehend what someone has said to you because you weren’t quite “prepared” for Japanese yet that day. But I think that if you know why people are the way that they are, and really form an understanding for a way of life (and a way of thinking and behaving) outside your own, it goes a long way to preventing you from feeling completely out of place. It’s ceases to be intimidating, and it becomes more fascinating.
These little self-discoveries and reflections represent the clichedly “life-changing” nature of this kind of experience: you form a flexibility to engage with people and with a society that you are highly unfamiliar with. Sure you’ll buy a lot of cool stuff, and see many dazzling and awe-inspiring things (Japan can be a very photogenic place), but those things won’t change you. The society and the people you meet – and the way you form bonds, communicate and learn outside of your “normal circumstances” – is more significant than a mountain or a temple or all the merch your British neighbor can try (and fail) to carry. But then one day your Japanese friend sits next to you, and he puts his head on the desk and tells you that he didn’t really sleep because he was playing games and is woefully unprepared for his debate later that day. Suddenly, all of humanity – regardless of nation or culture – seems a little bit more familiar.
Caleb Ari, a Japanese Studies major, studied at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, Japan this 2018/2019 academic year.